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How do journalists get ‘out of’ PR spam

Nearly four years ago, I wrote this:

What if you could tag PR spam right from your inbox with the system sending automatic responses to each incorrect query?  Perhaps it  could even bounce them a full bio of what you *do* cover for future reference.

The Big Why

  • It’s the minimum disruption to journalists’ time. Right Click + Tag takes no longer than Right Click + Delete.
  • It sends a clear, unavoidable message to bad PRs each time it happens.  If they spam 200 addresses and get 180 bouncebacks each time, they might adjust their behaviour.
  • It doesn’t penalise the good PRs- it even improves their understanding of the publication for the future.

And even though I had some interesting chats about the subject with Charles Arthur and Adam Parker, among others, life got in the way and I never got round to putting a theoretical tool like this together.

Then today, in the midst of the discussion on Twitter, a simpler way of achieving it struck me.

Every journalist should turn on their Out of Office feature.

Okay, bear with me here — it’s not as crazy as it sounds.

The Good

The biggest challenge facing PR today is lack of feedback. Good PRs try to send news to journalists they think will be interested. We read their writing, stalk them on Twitter — we *listen* to them as best we can. And we still make mistakes because ultimately you’re also often taking a gamble when topics are on the ‘edge zone’ of what they may or may not want to cover. Part of our job is often to help good writers discover what’s at these edges and what’s happening next.

However, because the ratios of PRs to journalists are out of kilter, we can’t always get feedback. So names stay on lists that technically shouldn’t be there. Nobody wants them there, on either side, but logistically it’s impossible for the journalists to provide the feedback that would save them.

The Bad and the ugly

Meanwhile, bad PRs are smashing out their announcements left, right and centre because they either don’t understand or don’t really care. For better or worse, we do have these people out there who maybe are just doing their first job and don’t really care about sticking around for a career or anything.

This is a whole other topic — BUT, the important thing is, there’s little in the way of immediate cost for them to go broader rather than more targeted. Maybe their account manager will just smooth over the lack of coverage with the client, or maybe they’ll follow up with phone calls and get lucky in one of the 200 leads.

We need something that:

  • Scales for journalists – the closer to zero effort the better,
  • Rewards good PRs and helps them refine lists,
  • Punishes bad PRs in proportion to the volume of irrelevant spam they are sending
    • (or alternatively gives them less and less excuse for sending to the wrong people)

So – we need something that provides feedback for each and every email. This is where the automated Out of Office comes in.

The Idea

Every time a PR emails, they’ll receive a simple, personal update that clearly states what that journalist covers and how they like to be contacted. Whether they ask for it or not.

Most systems will only send this once per conversation thread, so it shouldn’t be entirely suffocating, plus it will give you a signal as to whether your email was properly received or ended up in spam (I think.) 

  • Bad PRs end up with an equal amount of responses in their inbox — but each one offering the potential for them to learn and refine their lists, causing them less return spam in future.
  • Good PRs get to know their leads even better — especially if journalists update this stock message every month or so to keep it current. Maybe they even highlight good and bad examples, there’s a lot of potential here.
  • Journalists hopefully end up with a relevant, low maintenance and direct opportunity to educate the people who email them, without things getting too personal.

The catch? Out of office goes to everyone. That I haven’t nailed yet.

But I think this might be one of the easiest, most low maintenance ways to really make progress in this area. Education isn’t enough — change will only happen if we take action.

Got a better idea or a way to improve this? Chip in.



By Max Tatton-Brown

Max Tatton-Brown is founder and MD of Augur, and has written for publications including the Guardian, Sifted and TechCrunch.

4 replies on “How do journalists get ‘out of’ PR spam”

Yeah, I like this idea. It’s actually do-able, where most solutions to this problem are a bit far fetched.

On the auto reply going to everyone, some out of office functions have the option to send different (or no) messages to email addresses on the same domain. So you wouldn’t be irritating colleagues. Alternatively if you did it as a rule rather than using the actual out of office function, you could add exceptions.

There are so many factors that it’s hard to know where to begin!

In the first instance, wouldn’t it be good if every PR sent out emails with some sort of standard code in the subject line to help filters, or even to avoid over zealous spam filters? Say [PR] or [Release]. That would help journalists identify the releases, and potentially set up rules to auto respond.

But for the more clever stuff, you’re probably talking about forwarding on your email to a service (or giving access to your email, ala LinkedIn) that can then easily identify these emails and let you respond with whatever information you want. You might get it to do it automatically, or check it periodically. Sounds like a Kickstarter project in the making there!

I guess PRs are a little stuck in that they need to be seen by their client as having all the journalist details on file, even if it’s clear many no longer want to be contacted – and many may have since left the industry etc. I’ve even seen emails with people CC’d in that are sadly deceased.

I’ve heard about changes of PR firms for manufacturers where the PR agency keeps its list of names and won’t pass them on – as they ‘own’ them. But that means a lot of genuine journalists suddenly stop getting anything from a company they’ve been writing about for years.

I totally agree there needs to be a better way to do things – and for every journalist getting annoyed by PR spam, there’s another journalist missing out on a release or event invite that they absolutely would want to write about….

Neat idea Max. It feels like it would need to somehow include a service to make it work exactly how you’d want, rather than rely on out of office and rules.

Great idea Max!

I think, as Katie has pointed out, it would be better to have a specifically built plug-in that analyses emails and utilises tags to provide appropriate auto-responses. Having said that It would be difficult (without a marketing/PR budget of a million billion pounds) to get journalists around the world to adopt this.

I think your out-of-office suggestion is a brilliantly simple solution though. Ian’s suggestion of using rules could be a good way around everyone getting an OOO – stopping journalists pissing off all their friends and colleagues. I also think Jonathan’s idea around a standardised subject line tag would be good, then the news could be autofiled by rules set up by journalists to be perused at their leisure. Problem is bad/ignorant PRs aren’t going to abide by this.

With my Tech PR hat on I think it would be annoying getting auto-responses back from every journalist I contact, however as pointed out, this could be remedied with a few custom rules.

With my Music journalism hat on, I think I might try fiddling with auto responses and rules to see if your concept is workable in the real world… I’ll keep you posted.

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